I’m not going to say that the Love Triangle is a hallmark of sloppy storytelling, per se, but lately it’s been the Hamburger Helper of plot devices. Don’t have time for full plot development? Try the Love Triangle! Just add one more love interest, and voila! Instant romantic tension!
It’s the fallback used to get a romantic subplot moving, an unsubtle impetus to drive the hero and heroine closer together. The reader can typically tell which side of the triangle should prevail, which eliminates any true tension, and if the author dares go another direction, every non-hipster reader feels cheated. So, it’s either predictable or “artsy.”
But rather than harp on how underwhelming this trope has become, I’m going to focus on my favorite examples of the Love Triangle instead. Surprise!
Plot: Fairies and humans converge in the forest on a midsummer’s night, with much mayhem as a result.
Love Triangle: Demetrius loves Hermia who loves Lysander, with Helena out in the cold; then Lysander and Demetrius both love Helena, who thinks they’re making fun of her, while Hermia is left abandoned and alone. I love that under the fairy-influence each heroine gets a sample of how the other feels, Helena annoyed by unwanted suitors while Hermia is left to solitude. With four players, this is probably more like a Love Rhombus than a Love Triangle, but there’s only ever love between three of them at the most, so I’m counting it.
Shakespeare is particularly good at the Love Triangle, and he does it without having a fickle character angsting over which dreamboat to choose. When his love triangle motif makes an appearance, it seems more a mechanism of comic relief rather than romantic tension. See, for example, the Viola/Orsino/Olivia entanglement from Twelfth Night. (Also a delightful love triangle, but I like Midsummer Night just a shade more. At least when it’s staged well.)
Plot: A modern girl goes 500 years back in time to medieval Japan, where she instantly ruins a lot of things and has to go around putting the pieces back together (hahaha, literally).
Love Triangle: Inuyasha, Kagome, and Kagome’s dead-but-resurrected past incarnation, Kikyo. Yeah. The heroine’s love-rival is a zombified version of her former self. The hero’s struggle between the two shows just how committed he was to that earlier incarnation, which is really sweet, considering what a rough character he is. This was the first manga series I read, mostly through transcripts because the English translation was so far behind the Japanese releases. I give it points for ingenuity in the love-triangle department, as I’d never encountered this sort of variation before.
Love triangles are a manga-plot staple. For a well-done standard “A must choose B or C” scenario, where both B and C are viable choices, see Natsuki Takaya’s Fruits Basket.
Plot: A farm boy escorts his noble crush back to her homeland, where she is promptly kidnapped by a witch.
Love Triangle: Taran loves Eilonwy, who is engaged to Rhun. Rhun is far too innocent and lovable for anyone to hate (though Taran resents him, and then resents himself for resenting someone so harmless). Eilonwy, meanwhile, remains oblivious that she’s the focal point of this triangle, as there’s no question in her mind how things are going to turn out.
I always loved that Eilonwy knew her own mind. I wanted to be her. That is all.
Plot: Cursed by a witch, a young-turned-old woman takes up housekeeping in a moving castle owned by a philandering wizard and powered by a fire demon.
Love Triangle: Sophie fights her growing feelings for Howl, who shamelessly flirts with every woman he encounters. There’s also the whole Michael loves Lettie-Martha issue, as well as Lettie + patchwork Suleman/Justin. It’s not so much a Love Triangle as a Love Scribble-all-over-the-page, and the whole book is entirely delightful.
Plot: Spurned by her childhood crush after sacrificing her future to enable his, a young woman joins the entertainment industry to exact her revenge.
Love Hate Triangle: Kyoko loathes Sho and despises Ren. Sho holds Kyoko in contempt, while Ren dismisses her for her vengeful ambitions. Sho hates Ren for being successful. Ren is indifferent to Sho, because he’s beneath notice. As far as I’m concerned, this is the Anti-Love Triangle. All three characters are at odds with one another, and then they grow and the plot twists and turns, and my insides are tied up in knots every time a new chapter is released.
I have laughed and cried over this series. I adore it. But then, it’s the tale of a self-hating Average Everygirl whose only path to success and happiness lies in learning to love herself first of all. It’s beautiful and brilliant and hilarious.
(And Kyoko’s finally getting somewhere, thank the stars.)
So, not all love triangles are bad. Have a favorite? Leave it in the comments!